Language provided the infrastructure on which India’s multi-party system is built. Therefore, linguistic diversity and language rights, cannot be ignored for a full comprehension of India’s 75 years of journey as an independent state.
INDIA is known globally for its colossal cultural and linguistic diversity. It occupies the third rank in terms of linguistic diversity according to the Greenberg’s Linguistic Index (LDI) of the world with 96 percent diversity coverage and in terms of population speaking different languages, it is on the top (LDI 2012).
“Though the partition of Bengal on religious grounds was vehemently opposed by the Indian National Congress in its Nagpur session of 1920, itaccepted that the organisation of the Congress, based on language, would help it penetrate deeper into the country increasing its membership and awakening nationalist feelings among the Indians.
Territorially, India is mostly linguistically organized. Two of its languages, Hindi and Bangla are the second and third most spoken languages of the world. Ancient languages such as Tamil, Sanskrit, Telugu, Malayalam, and Odia with an unbroken tradition of more than one thousand five hundred years of literary texts and discussions, have been recognized by the Indian government as classical languages.
Therefore, it is imperative to talk about language diversity in India as it played and still plays a critical role in shaping India’s democratic polity. From being the most debated issue in the Constituent Assembly of India and the resolution on national language as a‘half-hearted compromise’(Austin, 1966) to being termed as ‘dangerous’ for India’s territorial integration (Harrison, 1960), language provided the infrastructure on which India’s multi-party system is built. Therefore, linguistic diversity and language rights, cannot be ignored for a full comprehension of India’s 75 years’ journey as an independent state.
Language as the ground of identity and categorisation finds its first mention in a letter written by Herbert Risley in 1903 to Lord Curzon, around the discussions surrounding partition of Bengal. Consequently, it figured again in 1919 as a provision to organise the large provinces on linguistic basis for effective administration. The viability of formation of sub-provinces on a linguistic basis, so that governance mechanisms would be simplified in homogeneous units, was also examined. Conducting legislation in vernacular in order to help in drawing persons not acquainted with English into the public arena was alsoconsidered.
Though the partition of Bengal on religious grounds was vehemently opposed by the Indian National Congress in its Nagpur session of 1920, itaccepted that the organisation of the Congress, based on language, would help it penetrate deeper into the country increasing its membership and awakening nationalist feelings among the Indians.
India’s constitutional debates surrounding language, especially the issue of national language turned into a hotbed of conflict among various members. This is mainly because Hindus form the majority of the population, but linguistically no language in India can claim to be in majority as no single language is spoken by 50 percent of the population. This issue was further problematised due to the absence of any constitutional definition of ‘minority’ and this led to numerous legal cases, parliamentary debates, frictions and even violent movements.
In the first decade of independence all these factors culminated in the linguistic reorganisation of India in 1956 on the recommendation of the States Reorganisation Commission. The process of linguistically reorganising Indian states became a major issue of contestation between the Union Government and the states as even after reorganisation various communities felt discontented.
“The process of linguistically reorganising Indian states became a major issue of contestation between the Union Government and the states as even after reorganisation various communities felt discontented.
Conflicts broke out in Maharashtra and Gujarat over the claim on Bombay city. The Andhra movement demanding a separate Telugu state was not fully satisfactory to various communities who demanded Telangana. Punjab was caught in the dilemma of Gurmukhi speaking Sikhs and Hindi speaking Hindus demanding a separate state. Northeast India was in turmoil with demands from various factions for reorganising the state of Assam.
This was mainly due to the intensity of language variations which were difficult to be placed under a single state’s territorial boundary. Even though the Indian government was committed to addressing grievances of the linguistic minority groups, problems arose while translating plans into practice and meaningful policies.
Constitutional provisions on linguistic rights: a chequered journey
Constitutional provisions on language rights in India can be categorised into four:
those mentioned under Part III, i.e. Fundamental rights (Art 29-30, protection of minorities and their right to preservation of their language and culture and to establish educational institutions);
language used in Parliament and between the Union Government and the states, official language of the Union Government and the states etc. (Art. 120, Art. 343 to 347);
Language used in Supreme Court and High courts (Art 348-349);
Special Directives Article 350 pertains to individual persons’ entitlements to submit representations for redressal in any of the languages used in the Union and the States. (At present, 22 languages are recognized as scheduled languages and English as an associate official language included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution).
Article 350A pertains to the rights of linguistic minorities to facilities for instruction in their mother tongue at primary stage. Article 350B requires that (1) there shall be a Special Officer for linguistic minorities to be appointed by the President; and (2) It shall be the duty of the Special Officer to investigate all matters relating to the safeguards provided for linguistic minorities under this Constitution and report to the President upon those matters at such intervals as the President may direct, and the President shall cause all such reports to be laid before each House of Parliament, and sent to the Governments of the States concerned.
“The right to mother-tongue education, even though guaranteed by the Constitution, often remains a distant dream for many as the policy states that a teacher for minority language instruction can only be appointed if at least 40 students opt for it.
Time and again, legal cases violating rights of linguistic minorities have been filed in various courts of the country. As language rights, especially those in Article 350, can be guaranteed under the umbrella of educational rights, the three-language formula of India was designed towards an inclusive policy of mother-tongue education envisioning India’s multilingual population.
The right to mother-tongue education, even though guaranteed by the Constitution, often remains a distant dream for many as the policy states that a teacher for minority language instruction can only be appointed if at least 40 students opt for it. There still remains a dearth of quality books in all Indian languages and paucity of teachers.
The government of India, in its new education policy, illustrated multilingualism as a strength towards building a composite culture in India. It remains to be seen how the linguistic rights of individual citizens and young children are met by the current state disposition.
India’s plural culture is its greatest strength which guards it against falling to undemocratic principles. Let us hope that the current wave of homogenization recognizes this and we remain united as Indians speaking various languages, practising different religions and cultural rituals while respecting each other’s uniqueness.